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Meet the Charitable MVP of The National

Meet the Charitable MVP of The National

DeMarco Williams

Signatures for Soldiers is the standout organization founded by Tim Virgilio that asks athletes to sign memorabilia that is then sold to sports fans, with 100% of those proceeds benefiting Military Missions in Action, a company formed by Mike Dorman whose central focus is to help better the living conditions for disabled U.S. veterans.

The National Sports Collectors Convention (July 28-August 1) understands the groups’ importance, so much so that it asked SFS and MMIA to be the official charity partners for this year’s show. The groups will have an on-site presence at The National, but they hope the biggest news they make is with an online collectibles auction that runs through July 31 (text “National” to 99192 to register and bid). Virgilio says you’ll find everything from a signed Joe Theismann jersey and Larry Holmes’ boxing gloves to a pair of Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger’s game-used cleats up for bidding.

In preparation for The National, Sports Card Investor recently chatted with Virgilio about his love of sports cards as a youth, Signatures for Soldiers’ mission and his need for a lot more sharpies around the office.  

Former Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald representing for SFS. Photo courtesy of Tim Virgilio

What are some of your earliest card-collecting memories?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve collected cards. It would have probably been like, I don’t know, 1980, ’81 or ’82. Somewhere in that time frame. A friend of my dad’s owned a convenience store. And every time my parents would have him and his wife over, he would always bring a couple packs of cards from the store for my brothers and I. That’s really kind of the first memory that I have of really collecting. And then, obviously, [the hobby is] not what it is now. You sorted them by teams and then you put a rubber band around them and tossed them in a shoe box and put them under your bed.

And then things really get going in the mid to late ‘80s, with the big boom of the junk wax era. That’s when it really took off for me. And then, like everybody else, I get into my teen years and have other interests and go to college and then get married and then, eventually, find my way back into it. You know, kind of the typical collector story.

When does your mission change into doing good for others?

So, I don’t know, I’m probably 13 or 14 years old and my dad (an Air Force veteran) had grown up in the Bronx. He grew up with those Yankees dynasties, with Mantle, Maris, Ford, Berra, all of them. Our connection has always been baseball. I know it kind of feels cliché. I almost feel like a talking billboard for Field of Dreams or something. The connection is there, right? So, one day my dad and I are just talking and he starts telling me stories about how he would clip photos out of magazines and things like that and send them to the players at the stadiums and then get them back signed and all that. So, that kicked off me starting to collect autographs. That really became my focus. Since then, I’ve always just really loved collecting autographs. If I’m a niche collector, that’s my niche—autographs. Pretty much from that time, on and off, collecting autographs, going to shows, doing through-the-mail requests and stuff like that.

And then, back in 2007, my wife and I move to North Carolina. We meet a gentleman who starts telling us about this charity that he’s going to start, and all the great work that they’re going to do, doing home repairs and home remodels for disabled military veterans and all of that. That was the beginning of Military Missions in Action, which is the charity that we support. So, my wife and I have been involved with them literally since the beginning. We would help fundraise for them. We would do care package drives for them. We would do projects with them. I sat on the board of directors for them. My wife and I are now on the advisory board for them. We did all that while we were in North Carolina, and then my job took me to Georgia. We moved to Savannah. We get there and it’s football season. I remember a Thursday night game was on TV and I’m just sitting in the living room, trying to think of ways I can continue to support Military Missions in Action. I had all these boxes of cards that are just kinda sitting there. And I’m like, “Well, you know what? Let me go ahead and start writing some players and asking them if they would sign a few cards, knowing that my intention is to turn around and sell them and then 100% of the money would go directly to Military Missions of Action. That’s how it started.

Do you remember who the first team or player that you reached out to was?

So, I reached out to a couple players almost simultaneously. But the first player that I get cards back from was Barry Lyons. Barry Lyons says, “Yeah, absolutely. I’ll sign cards for you.” He signs, I don’t know, 10 to 15 cards, something like that. So, I posted out on social media. This lady gets in touch with me. She goes, “You know Barry used to be our neighbor. I’d love to buy one card of each of the different [sets] you have.” It’s like 10 different cards. She says, “I’ll give you $300 for’em.” I’m like, “Fair market value would be roughly $20 at best. I appreciate it, but I also want to be fair.” She was really generous with her donation. That was probably the first interaction where I was thinking that this could really turn into something. To this day, I stay in touch with Mr. Lyons and just thank him. I tell him you’re partly to blame for this.

You needed that positive reaction from a player to catapult you and keep you going.

It wasn’t just his positive reaction. It was this lady, too. Here she is, willing to pay 10 times over market value for something, knowing that all the money’s going to a charity. I think that was the first time that it really opened up my eyes. This could be a significant fundraiser for Military Missions in Action.

Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly chats with SFS’ Tim Virgilio. Photo courtesy of Tim Virgilio

How many players would you say have signed things since Barry Lyons?

At one point, I was able to really keep track. Now, my best guess is 400-plus. It’s really taken off. It’s absolutely incredible.

Any guess on how many veterans you’ve reached with Signatures for Soldiers?

So, the money that gets raised, it goes to the charity. [Military Missions in Action] has since kind of expanded what they do. They do home repairs and home remodels for disabled veterans. The disability could simply just be old age because the ultimate goal is to keep them living independently in their own home. They’ll build wheelchair ramps to allow easier access in and out of the house. They’ll widen doorways. They’ll change out flooring from carpet to the hard surface. They’ll remodel a bathroom to make it a walk-in or handicap accessible. They’ve done lots of those types of things. They also support homeless veterans with care packages. It would be clothing items and hygiene items primarily.

Hypothetically, I’m a homeless veteran. If I’m able to find affordable housing, I’m now moving into what’s most likely a one-bedroom apartment. Well, the only thing that I have are the clothes on my back and whatever I can carry. What Military Missions in Action will do is they’ll show up and literally furnish the whole place—bed, linens, furniture, TV, pots and pans, flatware, silverware. They give them gift cards, so they can put food in the refrigerator. If you can think of it, they’ll furnish the whole place for the guy or woman. Those are some of the programs that they do as far as helping homeless veterans. They also send roughly nine to 10,000 care packages overseas to deployed military personnel. So, depending on where they use the money really depends on how many veterans they’re impacting.

Talk about your connection to The National.

So, for this year, the organizers approached us and asked us to be the charity partner for The National. We’ll have a booth set up where we’ll be selling autographed items and other donated items that we have. But also, as part of it, The National is putting on an auction. All of the bidding goes through the Handbid app. And 100% of the money raised from that will go to Military Missions in Action as a result. That’s really where my focus is right now.

You say that casually, but that’s a huge deal to be connected to The National on that scale.

Trust me, I’m still in awe. My dad collected as a kid. And then obviously, he never got back into it. But then when I started collecting autographs, he’d get excited for my mail days. He’d be like, “Oh, what you get in today?” We’d talk about whatever player signed a card for me, that type of thing. We always talked about going to The National and how cool it would be. Unfortunately, he and I never made it together. And then, three years ago, I got invited to set up a booth at The National. A couple, Dave Gelfman from Ripping Wax and Rob Bertrand from GTS Distribution, basically said, “Hey, Tim, if you get there, we’ll give you the space.” Three years ago, in Cleveland, was the first year that I set up there. I was able to get out in front of a lot of people, in terms of collectors, companies and all that. Dave Gelfman and Rob Bertrand invited me back for Chicago two years ago and did the same thing. I think, after those back-to-back years, the organizers for The National took notice and asked that we be the charity partner last year for Atlantic City. But unfortunately, that got canceled. So then, when it looked like it was a really good possibility that this would be happening [in 2021], they approached me again and said, “Hey, I know we were supposed to do this last year, but would you want to do it this year?” So, to go from being a 13- or 14-year-old kid talking to my dad like, “Hey, the next time it’s in Baltimore, let’s go to The National” to this, I’m still in awe of it all.

Former NBA star Kenny Anderson approves SFS’ mission. Photo courtesy of Tim Virgilio

For those people who can’t make it to Chicago for The National, how can they be supportive of your organization?

So, the cool thing about the auction is that because it’s going through the Handbid app, you don’t need to be there to win. So, basically, if you’re in Butte, Montana, and can’t make it but you want to support it, go on and register on the Handbid app. If you text “National” to 99192, it’ll ping you back with a link that you can go ahead and register, view the items and go ahead and start bidding. So, if you’re in Butte, Montana, and you win the Brett Favre jersey, and you’re not there to pick it up, I’ll mail it to you. If I have to mail every single item, I’m cool with that. The bidding will be open through 9 p.m. central time on July 31. Topps actually donated a bunch of sealed product to us. A whole bunch of various football, baseball and entertainment product.

Otherwise, throughout the year, follow me on Twitter (@SigsForSoldiers) and on Facebook (Signatures for Soldiers). I’m constantly posting stuff that I got in the mail and stuff that’s up for sale. And again, 100% of the money goes directly to Military Missions in Action. You’d be supporting me that way. I accept donations of all different things, from signed items to unsigned items. I have collectors that will donate whatever base cards that they don’t want or use because I keep an inventory because I never know who the next player that’s gonna sign for me is. So, it’s nice to have that type of an inventory on hand.

Tim, what does that inventory look like?

Well, seeing as how my wife just got home, let’s not talk about that… Right now, I’ve got like 40,000 cards. I probably have like eight 5,000-count boxes right now. Actually, my wife and I were just talking about that the other day, how I need to reconfigure some things just because [Signatures for Soldiers] keeps gaining momentum, which is a good thing.

If you don’t have that type of stuff, but you want to support somehow, I go through a ton of envelopes. I’m constantly buying envelopes of various sizes. I need six-by-nine padded envelopes. I need legal-sized envelopes. I need a ton of stamps. Oh, and blue Sharpies! Everything I send out [to be signed], I send with a blue Sharpie. I literally send [players] everything they need, whether it’s the pen that they need to sign it, a return envelope or the box with postage paid already. They open it, sign it, put it in the envelope or box and seal it up, and off it goes.

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